The Allentown, Pa., of Billy Joel's 1982 hit song was a played out, economically depressed city with a get-it-done citizenry struggling to keep the place alive. "The current picture contains more positives," says architect Paul Felder, who moved to the Queen City from New York in 1974 and opened Architectural Studio. "[We're] a community in transition from largely defunct manufacturing to a range of other things, like suburban development, commuting, trucking, and entertainment."
Visionary planners and developers are transforming the city, which was once a steel and silk manufacturing hub. Building on the popularity of the Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom amusement park just outside of town, Allentown's formerly industrial waterfront is becoming a cultural, sports, and entertainment mecca.
"The waterfront is one of the few really developable areas that's a blank slate," says Edgar J. Smith II, an associate architect in the Pittsburgh office of Burt Hill, which designed the project that started it all: a 26-acre residential and commercial development called—what else—The Waterfront. Museums, galleries, parks, and a baseball stadium have already sprung up around the ongoing project. "They're keeping the cultural district close to homes and accessible to visitors," says Smith.
"Allentown represents an important example of what is good and bad about our country," Felder says. "It's got a wonderful architectural heritage and an increasing willingness to preserve it. And a strong environmental interest that's exemplified by lots of adaptive reuse, a desire for improved mass transit, and leadership from local industries."
July 2007 population: 107,117 (est.); 2000–2006 job growth: 8.2 percent.
Downtown commercial vacancy is less than 1 percent.
Median home sale price in July 2008: $148,000.
- Proximity to Philadelphia and New York
- Good housing affordability
- Aggressive efforts by city to help rehab brownfields
- Business base is mostly "old economy" manufacturing
- Cost of redeveloping industrial properties
- Urban sprawl
"I think [the current revitalization] will spur other projects of different scales," says Burt Hill's Edgar Smith. "Homeowners will see potential to raise a family. And I'd like to see more companies find their way [here]. They know their workers can afford housing stock, and that could spur more investment."